One of the most significant themes of Our Country's Good is its triumphant advocacy of the power of theatre. A group of downcast and demoralised convicts undertake a production of Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer at the prompting of a liberal governor. When first produced in 1988, it provided a rallying cry for the theatre in the third term of a government that considered "subsidy" and "theatre" dirty words. Unfortunately, politics and theatre are cyclical and once again we are at a point where the theatre is "on a knife-edge", as Nicholas Hytner proclaimed recently.
In a scene from Our Country's Good, Governor Philip proves to be the establishment champion we long for. "Theatre is an expression of civilisation. We belong to a great country which has spawned great playwrights: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and even in our own time, Sheridan." We may echo the Governor's words and proudly point, "in our own time", to Pinter, Stoppard, Churchill, Hare, Lee Hall, to Wertenbaker herself and more. Who will be our Governor Philip?
No champion steps forth from the Government's benches. We have a Minister for Culture who recently reprimanded an arts community, rightly concerned for the future of regional theatre, for making statements that she wrote were "close to pure fiction". And the irony of an Education Secretary who is a prominent consumer of the arts yet excludes cultural subjects from the Ebacc. In Our Country's Good, an officer objects to the proposal that convicts should stage a play when they could be learning "useful" skills instead. It is a timely play indeed.
Shouldn't the Arts Council be that champion? In 2009, the Arts Council published a glossy brochure called Achieving Great Art for Everyone. In it, it claims that "the arts are crucial to a holistic education", and that it "will champion opportunities for children and young people to enjoy the arts". Out of Joint already runs a highly successful education programme but, ironically, the increased demand created by Our Country's Good has spawned its own particular problems. Recently, one of our workshop leaders went to a Liverpool comprehensive. The expenses involved in the trip meant we ran the workshop almost at a loss. The fee for our two-hour workshops has slowly increased from £120 in 1993 to £150 today. Last month, for the first time, we encountered price resistance, as three disconsolate drama teachers phoned to say their headmaster had vetoed their planned workshop on fiscal grounds.
Encouraged by Achieving Great Art for Everyone, I wrote to the Arts Council, supplicating an extra £1,000 that we would use to cap all remaining workshops for this academic year at £100, and to instigate a training day so as to train more workshop leaders. The Arts Council replied that it was unable to find £1,000 from its reserves of slightly more than £141m to support us. The design, printing and distribution of Achieving Great Art For Everyone cost £31,307. Perhaps it has spent too much time boasting about its commitments to find time for much championing.
In Our Country's Good, officers question whether the convicts could ever have the sensibilities to appreciate culture. Slash away the funding that makes the arts one of our continuing success stories and we are in danger of depriving many of the opportunity. In this atmosphere, who can doubt that the voice of Our Country's Good needs to be heard more urgently than ever.
Max Stafford Clark directs 'Our Country's Good' at the St James Theatre, London SW1 (0844 264 2140; stjamestheatre.co.uk) 30 January to 9 March